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Conflict of interest? Darien hate crime case left in hands of civil court

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A former defendant in a hate crime trial claims the prosecutor should have recused himself from trying the case because of a lack of objectivity. Legal experts say the connection is not enough to warrant a conflict of interest, however.

With charges now dropped against William Bryan Jennings, information continues to surface in the peculiar case that resulted in Jennings being charged of a hate crime against Mohamed Ammar, a Muslim taxi driver of Egyptian descent, after the men argued over a cab fare. Steven Weiss, the assistant supervisory state’s attorney who prosecuted Jennings, declined to charge Ammar with unlawful restraint and evidence tampering, despite there being substantial probable cause to do so, according to Connecticut statute and Ammar’s own admission.

Instead, Weiss decided to let the two men battle it out in civil court.

“I think overall the best way to resolve this is to let the civil lawyers resolve it in whatever way they think is appropriate,” Weiss told the court the day Jennings’ charges were dropped. Jennings said he is still on the fence regarding any civil action against the Town of Darien. Ammar has retained legal counsel in pursuit of action against Jennings.

Though it’s unclear whether Ammar and Weiss have mutual friends or knew each other before the incident, The Darien Times has learned through multiple sources that Weiss is Muslim and that his wife, like the alleged victim, may be of Egyptian descent, which, according to Jennings, after examining Weiss’s actions after the fact, may have played a role in his actions. Since Jennings was charged with a hate crime against an Egyptian Muslim, the sensitivities surrounding that fact should have been reason for Weiss to recuse himself, Jennings said. Legal experts, however, disagreed.

Jennings said he believes that several of Weiss’s decisions indicated substantial bias.

“The prosecutor willfully ignored the driver’s own admissions of kidnapping,” Jennings told The Darien Times. “And, despite formal requests from my attorney to arrest Ammar for unlawful restraint, there was never any arrest made of the taxi driver. I think the poor quality and clearly biased nature of that decision speaks for itself.”

Weiss has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

• Prosecutor withholds evidence in Jennings trial

Unlawful restraint

Weiss decided not to charge Ammar with unlawful restraint, despite Ammar having admitted in a sworn testimony to having taken Jennings from his home after the two argued over the fare, and Weiss acknowledging in court that there was probable cause to arrest Ammar for that crime.

“Mr. Ammar had committed an unlawful restraint,” Weiss told the court.

Ammar had driven Jennings to his Darien home on Knollwood Lane from Manhattan. It was just after midnight when they arrived, and Ammar claims he couldn’t get cell phone reception when he tried to call police to settle the fare dispute. Jennings said Ammar didn’t try to call police, claiming instead that the driver threatened to take him back to New York if he didn’t pay the demanded fare.

Jennings, fearing he was being abducted, drew a knife. Ammar reported that Jennings cut his hand, but Jennings said Ammar grabbed the knife from him. Police stated that Jennings told them Ammar said, “You cut me,” but nowhere in Jennings’ written statement does that claim appear.

Ammar stopped, and Jennings ran home. Ammar admitted to ignoring a traffic signal to keep Jennings inside the taxi. Jennings managed to get the door open with the cab in motion, and asserts Ammar ignored several traffic signals while driving at “a high rate of speed.” The path Ammar took contains at least one stop sign and two traffic signals.

The statute of limitations for an unlawful restraint charge is five years. No charges have been filed against Ammar for unlawful restraint, despite a formal request made by Jennings’ lawyer, Gene Riccio.

Hate crime

In addition to assault and larceny charges, Jennings faced second-degree intimidation based on bigotry or bias charges. However, Ammar left out accusations of a hate crime in his initial statement. It wasn’t until his second statement to police, given a week after the incident, that Ammar told Darien Police that Jennings said, “Motherf—– I’m going to kill you. You should go back to your country.”

Hate crime convictions allow for the injured person to sue for money damages, according to Connecticut statute.

It’s unclear why Jennings wasn’t instead charged with threatening, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and $1,000 in fines. Police have declined to comment, claiming the case has been dismissed and therefore no longer exists. Another Darien case that appears to have even more evidence for a hate crime charge happened in October of 2012, just days before Jennings’ case was dismissed.

Darien Police arrested Hale Lane resident Kathleen Bothfeld for disorderly conduct, after she reportedly admitted to yelling at her neighbor to take down a Shalom sign. Shalom is a Hebrew greeting meaning “peace.”

According to the arrest warrant, Bothfeld told police that “I told her I was going to take that f—— sign down.”

The neighbor who had the sign said Bothfeld told her “I’m going to make sure your Shalom sign is coming down, bitch…”

Bothfeld was not charged for a hate crime. Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm said because Bothfeld didn’t make any anti-Semitic comments to the neighbor, or “allude to the fact that she wanted to damage the sign as a demonstration of anti-Semitism,” her charges were kept to disorderly conduct.

Jennings was charged with second-degree racial intimidation, a felony, but there is also a third-degree charge in the state statute, a misdemeanor.

“A person commits the third degree crime if he intends to intimidate or harass a person or group of people because of their actual or perceived race [or] religion…” writes attorney Christopher Reinhart in a brief to the General Assembly. Reinhart states that property doesn’t necessarily need to be damaged, but threats “to do so by word or act or [if the person] advocates or urges another person to do so and gives the victim reasonable cause to believe the act will occur,” constitutes a third-degree charge.

Both Bothfeld and her neighbor with the Shalom sign agreed to the details of the incident, yet third-degree charges were never filed. In Jennings’ case, it was one man’s word against another. Despite the differing views, Weiss and police decided to charge Jennings with the felony version of the crime.

Jennings also claims he wasn’t even aware of the hate crime charge until he showed up to the police station in response to his arrest warrant, which was issued about two months after the incident.

Evidence tampering

All charges were dropped against Jennings in October because Ammar had kept the knife used in the scuffle for four months. His lawyer, Hassan Ahmad, claimed Ammar kept it because he was unaware of judicial procedure.

Ammar was not charged with tampering with evidence, a Class D felony, with penalties comparable to Jennings’ hate crime charge.

“A person is guilty of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence if, believing that an official proceeding is pending, or about to be instituted, he… conceals… any record, document or thing with purpose to impair its verity or availability in such proceeding,” the statute reads.

At court, Weiss said Ammar “concealed evidence from the police for five months,” but did not mention charging him.

Ammar claims he found the knife under the front seat of the cab while cleaning it. The cab has a floor-to-ceiling partition with a small hole at the top center, and Jennings rode in the back seat. Ammar also told police the folding knife was found in the closed position. In a police report never filed in the case, but obtained by The Darien Times through a confidential source, police said the knife could only be closed by pressing a release button.

The knife also tested positive for blood. No analysis on the blood-splatter pattern was ever included in any police report.

Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm said officers never searched Ammar for the knife. Police searched the car that night for the knife and found nothing, and Komm added that the cab was “thoroughly searched” a week after the incident, which also yielded no results.

Jennings and his lawyer, Riccio, were not told about the knife surfacing until about two weeks before the trial, or roughly four months after police filed the report with Weiss’s office, according to Jennings, who was fired from his job with Morgan Stanley while Weiss withheld evidence. Morgan Stanley is now reportedly withholding around $5 million in deferred compensation from Jennings as a result of media coverage around his case.

Jennings said during the period when Weiss knew about the knife and he didn’t, Weiss was trying to get him to accept accelerated rehabilitation, a plea deal that allows a defendant to have their record erased after two years of probation and good behavior.

Norm Pattis, a civil rights attorney in New Haven, earlier told The Darien Times that Weiss’s alleged actions deserve further scrutiny.

“To seek a plea bargain while withholding evidence is unconscionable,” Pattis said.

Larceny

Jennings also faced larceny charges, which were also dropped in October. Riccio said these charges never should have been filed, as the agreed-upon transaction between Ammar and Jennings was never fulfilled because Ammar took Jennings from his home against his will.

“Does probable cause for a larceny charge exist where Mr. Anmar [sic] by his own admission took [Jennings] against his will away from his home and dangerously operated his motor vehicle to intentionally prevent [Jennings] from fleeing the vehicle?” Riccio wrote in a Franks Motion to dismiss, which claimed the Darien Police investigation was sloppy.

Riccio continued: “What state law sanctioned or permitted these actions by Mr. Anmar? Is it not reasonable to conclude that the commercial relationship between the parties at that point had ended by the dangerous and unlawful actions of Mr. Anmar? Further, at that juncture how could it be determined that probable cause existed that [Jennings] intended to permanently deprive Mr. Anmar of his fare, which under the circumstances [Ammar] was not entitled to, when [Jennings’] focus was more properly upon the preservation of his own life?”

No charges

At Jennings’ trial, Weiss explained why he didn’t charge Ammar with abduction.

“The state decided not to charge Mr. Ammar with unlawful restraint for two reasons,” Weiss told the court. “Number one, Mr. Ammar was the injured party, and number two, Mr. Jennings didn’t cooperate with police. He fled. He never called police until he found out the police were looking for him and then his explanation as to why he didn’t call the police simply didn’t wash.”

Jennings admitted he should have come forward earlier, but before he turned himself in, police didn’t know he was involved.

“We proactively arranged a meeting with the Darien Police Department,” Jennings told The Darien Times. “Up to that point I don’t believe they had any idea who I was.”

Jennings also challenged Weiss’s notion that he didn’t cooperate.

“They said I never cooperated with them, despite the fact that we proactively reached out to them,” he said. Jennings came to police six days after The Darien Times reported the incident, which is how, through a friend, Jennings learned that police were looking for him.

It was Weiss’s decision to not charge Ammar, and he also agreed with Darien Police that the hate crime charge should be included in Jennings’ arrest warrant, according to Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm.

“Now if I were asked the question today, ‘Do we arrest Mr. Jennings and Mr. Ammar or both’,” Weiss said during Jennings trial, “I would have to say we should arrest both of them because I have two people where there is probable cause to believe they each committed a crime.”

But Weiss said he doesn’t think “there is any public interest in having Mr. Ammar arrested.”

No conflict?

A week before the trial, word came to Ahmad, Ammar’s lawyer, that charges would likely be dropped against Jennings. Ahmad waited roughly a week before issuing a press release, slamming the prosecution’s likely decision to drop the charges. The statement was sent out on the Friday before Jennings’ trial started the following Monday. During those three days, press reports from around the world weighed in what some were billing as a rich, white Wall Street banker getting away with stiffing and stabbing a poor, Egyptian cab driver.

David Cohen, state’s attorney and Weiss’s supervisor, said Weiss was not in a position to recuse himself from trying the case.

“I think for any prosecutor worth their salt that those things would be irrelevant,” Cohen told The Darien Times. “When we’re dealing with conflict of interest, that has to be a person, his family, somebody he knew, then yeah, that’s a conflict… Just on basis of religion or nationality, I would call it silly.”

Jeanne Leblanc, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Cohen, saying religion or nationality would not, on its own, create a conflict of interest.

Jennings sees things a bit differently.

“Further, despite an admission of evidence tampering by the taxi driver, again, Weiss did nothing,” Jennings said. “In my opinion, Weiss’s poor decisions throughout the criminal process suggest to me that he should have recused himself from this matter.”

Weiss has not had a single grievance filed against him since he was admitted to the Connecticut Bar Association in 1978, according to the Statewide Grievance Committee.

ddesroches@darientimes.com

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  • John

    Sounds like this writer is in Jenning’s back pocket for sure…Yes, the prosecuter may have messed up a detail…thats why they have espensive lawyers you dope…….

  • concernedcitizen552

    Dear John, really? You need to call the writer a dope [that's quite rude by the way] for pointing out that the prosecutor had rock solid proof (by the driver’s own admission(s)) of two potential felony charges. Yet, nothing was ever done about it. That doesn’t sound at least a little biased? Further, the whole case against Jennings was paper thin, circumstantial and one gigantic he said — he said situation yet Jennings was aggressively (very) prosecuted. I think it’s very clear Jennings got very harshly and aggressively treated by Weiss and the driver walked away unscathed despite admitting to two felony acts. I am not prepared to say that Weiss is biased because of his religion or his wife’s background. I am, however, pretty comfortable saying that Weiss’ actions DO suggest bias to a very significant degree.

  • Teri

    It’s rare we see Hersam reporters get out of their chairs and do quality research and reporting – luckily we are getting it with DesRoches

    http://www.teribuhl.com/2013/01/24/conflict-exposed-states-attorney-in-banker-hate-crime-case-is-also-a-muslim/

    I am not a metro reporter but this evidence makes it clear there are serious judicial problems in Cohen’s State’s Attorney office.

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